I was camped on a tiny island in Southeast Alaska a few years ago, monitoring seabirds in Icy Strait. The island, Entrance Island, is just about a dozen acres in size. On a short walk I came across some rotting lumber and fencing, and as I picked through it, I realized it was the site of an old fur farm.
100 years ago, fur farming was big business in Alaska. It was the third biggest industry in the state, after fishing and mining. Foxes were the most prized, and specific color phases of the red fox and the arctic fox netted more than $100 a pelt, a fortune in those days.
The first fur farm started in Southeast Alaska near Tracy arm in 1901, and by 1929 there were more than 700 fur farms in the Alaska territory, 200 in Southeast Alaska and hundreds more in the interior and on the Aleutian Islands. Islands were popular sites, as animals were fenced by the sea.
More than 45 different species of furbearers were farmed, including skunks, raccoons, rabbits, marten, otters and beavers. Otters and beaver proved too difficult to manage, and while marten were quite lucrative they were difficult to breed in captivity. Martin fur is marketed as sable, but some of the marketing terms were pretty misleading. The skunk's white-striped pelt was dyed black and marketed as "Alaska sable," and dyed rabbit pelts were sold as "Hudson's seal." Long-haired rabbits were sold as chinchilla, although they were not the actual velvety South American rodents known as chinchillas.
1929 marked the beginning of the end for fur farms. Fur prices plummeted in the 1930s during the depression, and fur farming was declared a non-essential industry during the Second World War.